Writings / Reviews

Fiction Review

Julia P.W. Cooper

Jewels and Other Stories
by Dawn Promislow
Toronto: Tsar Publications, 2010

         In 2010, South Africa has been a recurring point of focus in popular consciousness. First, came the much heralded film Invictus. Telling the story of Nelson Mandela’s induction into government and his decision to springboard South Africa onto the world stage through rugby, Invictus preaches a tidy sermon of easing racial tensions through teamwork and sportsmanship. Second, of course, was the 2010 World Cup of Soccer in South Africa. This spectacle, despite aggressive campaigning on the part of the government to highlight the patriotism and unity of its people, revealed disparate poverty, terrifying reports of violence, and an overall disconcerting portrait of the country. To then come across Dawn Promislow’s Jewels and Other Stories, a collection full of pathos and clarity, was a welcomed antidote to the skewed representations of South Africa propagating in popular culture.

            Writing through the landscapes and lives of South Africa in the 1970s, Promislow does not attempt to gloss over, or even clarify, the complexity of racial and familial relationships. It is with deceptive simplicity and an admirable economy of words that Promislow wades through the vicissitudes of her characters’ lives. Promislow’s fourteen stories are intricately crafted and seductively personable tales of basic human relation. In the span of a few pages, she reveals the collusion of the past’s formative events with the effacements of time, while maintaining a clarity and levity of voice that comes only with the confidence of a well-chosen word. “Jewels,” the namesake story of the collection, is clearly demonstrative of Promislow’s talents and her poignant understanding of the incantatory nature of memory. A story of childhood memory, the timid voice of “Jewels’” reconstructs the potent details of a child’s awakening to social and racial relations with sublime calm and surprising poetry. What Promislow so convincingly conveys is the maturity that these moments of childhood possess. Far from frivolous, it is these memories that remain with us throughout our lives. Their realization in the moment as things of enduring significance comes to us not as a sudden shock, but rather, “slowly, slowly, […] with certainty, like a stain” (9). In this story, a grown woman reflects on herself as a young girl who has just recognized her emotional misstep in offering money to her nanny. Now as a woman, she still remembers the shape of this recognition: “She was not powerful, as she had thought. She could not, with her limp hands, create the world in her image, after all” (9).
            Another theme touched upon by Promislow with great nuance and insight is the distance that can separate families. Not only the measurable miles that keep us from our kin, but the intangible spaces that grow and threaten to eventually divide us. Somehow Promislow manages to charge these moments of social dissolution with a promise of deeper connection in the future, saving them from the threat of inconsequence.  “Bottle” and “Just a Job” are beautiful examples of this. Both stories also delicately probe the boundaries of Master and servant in Apartheid South Africa, revealing a rarely articulated tenderness betwixt the two. This tenderness is perhaps only fleeting, guarded as it is by the realities and proprieties of social convention. Nonetheless, there is a current of human connection that runs throughout these interactions as represented by Promislow, defying conventional, binary understandings of class and race. Without falling into the familiar narrative of racial reconciliation, Promislow pinpoints instances of connection occasioned by distance, death, empathy, loss, separation, and joy. A truly exciting writer, Promislow fills an obvious dearth of dynamism and reflection in current representations of South Africa and South Africans. 

About The Author


Julia P.W. Cooper has a Master’s degree in English from McGill University. Her most recent research project is a foray into mourning, grief and its limits, with particular interest in the plays of Sarah Kane.

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